Who is Joel Chandler Harris? Get to know the man behind “Uncle Remus”
Written by Meredith Deeley, The Wren’s Nest
When I first came to The Wren’s Nest in Atlanta, Georgia more than three years ago, I had never heard of Joel Chandler Harris. In fact, I was a little confused about what the museum even was. “The Wren’s Nest”? Sounded more like a bird sanctuary to me than a museum. (The name comes from the family of wrens who would regularly nest in the home’s mailbox).
As an employee, this is a little embarrassing for me to confess. However, I don’t think I’m alone in my ignorance. Despite his impressive levels of fame and popularity during the 19th-century, I’ve discovered that few people recognize the name “Joel Chandler Harris” and I often have to explain who he was to help family and friends understand the nature of my job. So allow me to illuminate some of what I’ve learned about the man whose home was turned into the first historic house museum in the state of Georgia in 1913.
Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, in 1845, the illegitimate son of Mary Harris who became a seamstress to support them. A redhead with a chronic stutter, Harris struggled to fit in, but developed a strong sense of humor which he unleashed in the form of pranks. In his teens, Harris came across an ad for a “printer’s devil” position with The Countryman, a newspaper produced out of Turnwold Plantation. It was there that Harris had two formative and disparate encounters that would shape the two prongs of his career.
First, he met his mentor: Joseph Addision Turner. Turner was the owner of The Countryman and gave Harris access to his impressive library, sparking his passion for reading and inspiring him to become a lifelong proponent of the benefits of education. Turner also taught Harris about the newspaper trade, starting with operating a printing press. Later, Harris would sneakily add his own writing to the paper and Turner decided to cultivate the young man’s interest, providing constructive feedback on his first attempts at journalistic writing and eventually printing articles with his byline.
Harris would go on to a prolific journalism career, ultimately rising to the position of associate editor at The Atlanta Constitution (now The Atlanta Journal Constitution), where he worked for 24 years. Throughout his journalistic career, Harris would write numerous articles with progressive stances, including denouncing racist attitudes of fellow white southerners, advocating for the New South movement, condemning the practice of lynching, and supporting higher education for black men and women.
The second life-changing encounter Harris had was with the enslaved men and women who worked at Turnwold. Again, not particularly comfortable in “proper society,” Harris preferred the company of these men and women, often sneaking away to their quarters on the plantation. It was from them he first heard the Brer Rabbit folktales, stories with their origins in the African and Native American oral tradition that the enslaved men and women regularly told.
When Harris later turned the stories into a newspaper series, it changed his whole life. He created the character Uncle Remus as a framing device for the stories, having the fictional old, black man recount the Brer critters’ adventures to a young white boy. These serials became published anthologies and international bestsellers. The first of these, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, was a smash success in 1880, with more than 10,000 copies sold within the first four months of its release. In a way, these books were like a 19th-century Harry Potter series, with audiences all over the world anxious to read every new book Harris published.
The books skyrocketed the shy man to international fame and made him as popular as his contemporary (and friend) Mark Twain. They are the reason fans (including President Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller) rallied together after the author’s death in 1908 to turn his home into a house museum, a memorial they thought fitting for the homebody author.
The Uncle Remus books are also why Harris is a controversial figure in literature. Over the last hundred years, his stereotypical depiction of Uncle Remus dripping with “Old South” nostalgia, the dialect writing he employed, and his decision as a white man to publish stories of such significance to African-American culture have all been under intense scrutiny.
These two prongs of Joel Chandler Harris’s career highlight something I find utterly fascinating about the man: everything about him and his work seems like an inherent contradiction. An incredibly famous author…that no one has heard of now. A man on the world stage of literature…who basically never made public appearances. A lauded fiction writer…who saw himself as a “cornfield journalist” and an “accidental writer.” A white man…writing in the voice of a black man.
Actually, Harris himself acknowledged these internal dichotomies in a letter he wrote to his youngest daughter, Mildred, in March 1898:
“As for myself — though you could hardly call me a real, sure enough author — I never have anything but the vaguest ideas of what I am going to write; but when I take my pen in my hand, the rust clears away and the ‘other fellow’ takes charge. You know all of us have two entities, or personalities. That is the reason you see and hear persons ‘talking to themselves.’ They are talking to the ‘other fellow.’ I have often asked my ‘other fellow’ where he gets all his information, and how he can remember, in the nick of time, things that I have forgotten long ago; but he never satisfies my curiosity. He is simply a spectator of my folly until I seize a pen, and then he comes forward and takes charge.”
While casual acceptance of split personalities is a little concerning, it does seem to drive home Harris’s views of himself and his writing.
It would be easy to write Harris off, burying him in history the way Disney has buried its 1946 film version of the Uncle Remus stories, Song of the South, in its vault. But his work and impact on history and literature encapsulate the strange contradictions of being a Southern writer in a post-Civil War era. The Wren’s Nest is now dedicated to preserving his legacy, yes, but more importantly, to ensuring the stories that were central to African American culture and to Harris are preserved.
Meredith Deeley is the Education and Communication Director at The Wren’s Nest. She came to The Wren’s Nest as a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a Masters in Museum Studies. Previously, she worked at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. for six years as their Program Assistant. Meredith is still based in D.C. and on the weekends she volunteers as an interpreter on the Asia Trail at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo. Ask her anything about pandas. And in her spare time, you can find Meredith scuba diving in the Caribbean or the California coast. Learn more about The Wren’s Nest here.